What’s In A Work Bench?
Benching may be a term you haven’t heard before to describe an office environment. Civil engineers use the term to describe concrete on a sloping surface. Baseball uses it as a term for those suspended for play. More recently, it describes a work environment for transient office workers and collaborative teams.
If you’ve ever seen a stock broker trading floor, they’ve used a benching-type environment for decades. The central component of modern benching systems are parallel work surfaces oriented around a shared infrastructure – similar to cubicles. Instead of holding panel partitions, however, the shared infrastructure serves to facilitate individual power access and work tools.
The absence of panel partitions and minimal visual barriers are distinguishing factors of benching systems. Occupants typically sit opposite the shared support or side-by-side along the array of work surfaces. This environment facilitates the flow of information and makes efficient use of space for essential tasks at hand.
In this post, we’re going to examine two things. First, the reasons businesses implement benching workstations. Then, methods for implementing effective benching in your own workplace.
Why Businesses Employ Benching Systems
Real Estate Efficiency
Companies are looking for ways to better leverage their office space and accommodate as many people as possible. Office space is too expensive to build out and lease for the road warrior who is gone 3-5 days of the week. Benching is a creative way to reduce the occupied foot print per person and yet have flexibility for worker that may not be in the office all the time.
Minimal Up-Front & Future Investment
Benching systems’ minimalistic format inherently consumes less material in production, making them less expensive by design. Additionally, it’s easier to reconfigure and expand simple, repetitive components. This will reduce the future investment necessary to make changes to your workspace. Beyond cost-effectiveness, benching systems are inherently greener than traditional cubicles or office casegoods for the sheer reduction in raw materials and energy required to manufacturer one.
In a day and age where work and life are more “mixed” than “balanced”, it isn’t enough to buy attractive furniture. Offices must be furnished with functional solutions to the requirements for the space, allowing people to choose how they work. Benching systems perform responsively by allocating less real estate to workstations and allowing more for “ancillary” areas.
In the workplace, interactions are perceived to have the greatest positive effect on productivity. Benching can facilitate shared access to team materials, coordination across tasks, and flexible team activities. Greater accessibility can help streamline workflows and ensure efficient relaying of information. In our opinion, the most poignant potential benefit is a shared context for evaluating team progress and group success.
How To Implement Effective Work Bench Environments
The key to cultivating any effective work environment is understanding occupant needs. Before making a workplace decision based on cost-benefit, make sure that it’s a good fit for your team. Steelcase published a study in which 4 types of effective situations for benching systems were categorized. The axes are used to create archetypes who your employees are, then used to inform what those archetypes need in a work environment.
Consider the occupants of your workspace in terms of how much they have to move. The “nomadic” high end and the “residential” low end of the mobility spectrum each have very different needs, but both can be accommodated with the right benching application.
High-mobility occupants don’t need as much space as they need accessibility. Applications of this include consultants, salespeople, managers & other positions that need to “see and be seen”. These people need an efficient space to touch down, decompress, and execute necessary tasks before getting back out of the office. Prioritizing quick connections to colleagues and technology will support mobile workers’ efforts outside the workplace.
Low-mobility occupants must have their needs met with a static environment. Examples include employees in focused, process-driven functional areas: administrative departments, design teams, etc. These occupants need uninterrupted focus time, but usually need a shared space to assemble deliverables (reports, content, etc). Facilitating work processes with fixed equipment and intentional design will support low-mobility employees’ internal productivity.
How much interaction is necessary to get the job done? Occupants on the low end of the collaboration spectrum don’t rely very heavily on others. These users can prioritize work surface, storage, and other components for individual productivity. High-collaboration occupants typically need more common area for connecting ideas, reducing what’s available for individual spaces. Storage and communications tools must be compact and, in many cases, shared. Supporting collaboration requires an efficient mix of focus & group space, as well as the accessibility of work tools.
Finally, how can a work bench be made to work as hard as the occupant? Since benching systems are so interconnected, it can be more effective to consider the environment in terms of team productivity.
- Orientation. There are three basic questions to ask about orienting work bench environments (answered respectively). First, rows or pods – does this team execute a single responsibility, or perform separate tasks? Second, facing toward or away from each other – does this team need more focus or collaboration? Third, are the spaces individual or shared – does this team need established boundaries or freedom to choose?
- Wellbeing. To the benefit of employees, bench systems’ low-profile, partitionless design allows light to permeate deeper within work spaces. However, spaces without barriers make the threat of spreading germs more prevalent. Make sure to leverage available natural lighting and “sanitation stations” to maintain employees’ wellbeing.
- Privacy. Since benching systems are defined by having no partitions, screens can be used to attain greater privacy. Small panels can be attached to the work surface which provide slight visual and acoustic privacy for the individual, or larger mobile partitions can be used to create temporary walls around the workstations.
- Organization. While personal space isn’t as prevalent in benching environments, personal items and file storage bear serious consideration. Lockers and coat racks are an integrative way to make room for personal belongings, and storage components can be used for privacy.
- Access. Since mobile technology is the lifeblood of the mobile workforce, make sure that plenty of connections are available above the work surface.
What belongs to who? Designated (or assigned) real estate within the workplace is becoming a hot commodity with over 50% of organizations reportedly allocating less than 200 sq. ft. to individuals. When determining which portions of your work space to leave unassigned, consider again the need for mobility and collaboration. A highly mobile workforce probably doesn’t need designated space – just a touchdown workstation for their short periods in the office. A highly collaborative team likely needs a group space that is always open – maybe only open for that team, though. Low-mobility and low-collaboration occupants are often responsible for focused, repetitive tasks – users that will benefit from being allocated a space to make their own.
Thanks for Reading!
While benching can be applied in many situations, it is best suited to dynamic, interactive work environments & social work styles. The concept may not perform as effectively in spaces that require quiet, confidentiality, or deep concentration. Benching may or may not be the right concept for your unique processes, but exploring the possibilities can’t hurt.